Growing up in New York, I longed to see and hear the Yellow-breasted Chat, a beautiful bird of southern thickets known more for its unusual song as its brilliant yellow-orange breast. While some chats can be found in New York, and even points farther north, their real stronghold is in the southeastern US. That’s where one can stand in one spot and be serenaded by several chats simultaneously.
I first got my chance with chats in the summer of 1990, when I found them near the southern tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Chats on the Eastern Shore use woodland edge, old fields, and shrubby wax myrtle thickets for breeding, sometimes right up to the edge of the salt marsh. My first chat I only heard: these birds are usually very difficult to see despite their bright colors. Their song, however, is distinctive. It starts like the call of a Fish Crow from far away:
(whistled) “Too – too – too-too-tootootootoo.”
They keep doing these phrases, and a whole bunch more I haven’t transcribed, morning, noon, and night. The result, expecially when multiple chats are singing, is a delicious cacaphony of chirps, chucks, whistles, chatters, and, of course “wahs”, all delivered with the tell-tale pause between phrases.
But chats go one better when they’re really excited. Apparently it’s not enough to sing non-stop with vigor and puff out one’s golden breast. Sometimes a chat just has to add a flight disply into the mix. To do this, the bird flies out from its protected thickets and climbs about 50 – 100 feet in the air, all the while pumping its fully extended wings in an exaggerated flapping that seems much too slow to keep the bird aloft. Of course, the singing continues during this part. Then the bird sets his wings outstretched, and gracefully wafts back down to its perch, looking for all the world like a big butterfly sailing on a gentle breeze.
Seeing this display for the first time all those years ago convinced me that these birds have panache! But, for every 10 chats I encounter, I probably only hit 1 on a good day, that makes it feel like doing the aerial display.
I’ve now seen lots of chats since 1990, but it’s still a thrill when I do. The other day, I was slogging through a clearcut pine plantation with trees about 10-15 feet tall. Their branches slapped me in the face, and the blackberries growing beneath them left me with dozens of little punctures in the legs. But there in that stifling heat in an Oklahoma clearcut were chats – about one per acre. They were singing like mad from the cover of the pines, and a few were doing the flight display too. At one point, with a chat just overhead that was blocked from my view, I heard a weird and low “pup” “pup” “pup” sound. Then it hit me – with each exaggerated wingbeat of the display flight, the wings make a popping noise. After all these years, I learned something new about those chats, and something I’ve never read anywhere. Must be one of those things you have to be really close to experience. I love stuff like that.